Two incidents from the Rourkela leg of FIH Pro League, both involving captain Harmanpreet Singh, show how vastly different the Indian men's hockey team's performance was in this 'mini tournament' from the World Cup back in January.
In the opening match against Germany on March 10, India won their first penalty corner at the stroke of half-time. With the score 0-0, Harmanpreet grabbed the chance with a rocket of shot to give India the lead. They won the match 3-2.
Again, in the final match against Australia on March 15, with the score 2-2 at the end of the match, Harmanpreet came up with two cheeky finishes in the penalty shootout to give his team the advantage. India eventually took the bonus point after winning the shootout and remained unbeaten in four matches.
This was a far cry from the World Cup at home over a month ago. Harmanpreet struggled to convert his PCs and produced a dreadful shot during their crossover match penalty shootout against New Zealand which, had he converted, would have taken India to the quarterfinals.
The hosts lost the match and their World Cup dream ended in tears. Germany went on to win the whole tournament and Australia finished fourth. Now, India has beaten these two teams at the same venue.
What do India's results mean?
Three outright wins and a bonus point in the final match while remaining unbeaten against Germany and Australia and moving to the top spot with 19 points from eight matches. A hugely positive performance for India.
The inevitable question is: Did Australia and Germany, teams which played the World Cup semifinals, come with their full-strength teams? The straightforward answer is no.
However, both teams also had enough experienced players in their ranks from the World Cup. Germany and Australia were using these Pro League matches as an opportunity to test new players. Germany had nine players who didn't feature in the World Cup while Australia arrived with four debutants. In fact, Australia had eight players with 10 international appearances or less. After their second match against India, Australia captain Aran Zalewski mentioned that 'it was a great experience' for a lot of 'young guys playing in India for the first time'.
Teams also used Pro League matches to test out new strategies, formations and positions. Germany's intensity dropped a notch below from what it was at the World Cup. Australia's attacking approach was also not the same; indeed their only win came as a result of a good defensive performance.
All of the above was also true for India.
With key senior players missing, playing under interim coaches -- David John and BJ Kariappa -- and having to overcome a disappointing World Cup, India did extremely well to win three matches. They retained the attacking approach of former coach Graham Reid, playing free flowing hockey and scoring 13 goals in four matches.
What worked for India?
• The finishing was significantly better than the World Cup. India struggled to convert their chances at the World Cup, which proved extremely costly. That was not the case here. In the opening win over Germany, India scored three goals from five shots. In the next game against Australia, they scored five goals from six shots. The second-leg match against Germany saw India netting six from eight shots.
• Captain Harmanpreet Singh also made it count by converting a majority of his penalty corner opportunities, which included a hat trick against Australia in their first leg match.
• Moving Dilpreet Singh to the midfield proved to be a blessing. He was solid with his pressing and his link up play with the forwards was outstanding. A Hardik Singh-esque performance - while playing next to Hardik himself.
• The frequent delivery of long balls into the circle also worked for the team. It's a strategy that surprised their opponents and helped India in winning penalty corners.
• In the absence of Krishan Pathak, goalkeeper Pawan did a solid job alongside PR Sreejesh, especially in the penalty corner defence department.
• The Sukhjeet Singh-Selvam Karthi combination up front. With experienced forwards like Mandeep Singh and Akashdeep Singh missing, Sukhjeet and Karthi showed they have the ability to create as well as score against big teams.
Sukhjeet made amends for a lackluster outing at the World Cup, massively improving his finishing. Karthi, meanwhile, showed why he should've been part of the World Cup squad. Hindsight is 20/20 but he brings an X factor with him which would've benefitted the team in January. Both players scored three goals each in four matches.
India's new full-time coach Craig Fulton is expected to take charge at the end of this month. His first assignment would be the Pro League away matches in Europe against England, Belgium, Netherlands and Argentina in May and June. India started the season well and they will look to end it on the same note with an eye on the title.
Later in September, India will play at the Asian Games, where a gold medal will mean they directly qualify for next year's Paris Olympics.